06/10/2009 05:12 am ET | Updated Nov 17, 2011

Why Can't Women Sleep? Part II: How to Sleep Well on Sunday Night

For women with sleep issues (and with apologies to Frank Sinatra), Sunday night is the loneliest night of the week. We toss, turn and worry in the wee small hours of the morning while EZ-sleepers move through their REM stages.

What time is it?

What's going to happen with that major (fill in the blank here)?

And most of all,

Why the #*@&%! am I not sleeping?

Sunday night hits problem sleepers hard for a good reason. You may not like the solution to the problem, initially. But I'm going to tell you anyway.

"You think you have insomnia, but you just have bad habits," says Carol Ash, DO, medical director for Sleep for Life, which runs two private sleep centers in New Jersey.

The key to good sleep, she insists, is getting the right amount of sleep at the right time for your body. The average human adult requires seven to nine uninterrupted hours of sleep per night. The effects of short-cutting that number aren't pretty.

As a long-term periodic non-sleeper, I greeted this news with a "Yes, and?"

I had warned Dr. Ash that I wasn't up for reviewing the old rules of sleep. I mean, didn't we know them already?

Darken your room. Cool your room. Don't snort espresso or watch Silence of the Lambs at bedtime.

The traditional Do's of Don't of sleep hygiene reminded me of the sticker on the rug scrubber I'd rented a few weeks ago: "Do not use electric vacuum in the rain."

This turned out to be a fitting comparison. Unregulated sleeping can be as shocking to one's system as driving an electro-vac in the rain.

"Fifty years ago it was considered normal to drink and drive," Dr. Ash says. "Doctors smoked in hospitals." Insufficient and improper sleep is our generation's version of a trendy yet unhealthful practice, she believes.

"Sleep will overtake you if you haven't had enough," she notes, using the plane-on-runway-populated-by-sleeping-passengers scenario as an example. "It's like oxygen. You can't change the need."

After 18 hours of consecutive wakefulness, the body goes into a state of shock. This shock, which impacts body and mind, is known as "sleep debt." And the debt can be achieved over time.

A sleep debtor has the same mental and physical reaction times of a person with a .08 alcohol level. We can also experience the same muscle pain as someone with fibromyalgia, a sensation that adds injury to injury.

Sleep debt accumulates faster than a finance charge on a revolving credit card. Let's say your body requires eight hours of sleep and you log five hours one night, six the next and seven the next. Before you can say, "Wowza, why do I feel so bad?" you've amassed a sleep debt of 30%, which is, in turn, accumulating negative interest. Some of the side-effects of sleep debt include a loss innovative thinking. And loss of optimism. And a loss was I saying?

It is logical to think that sleeping a lot on the weekend could make up for the sleep we lose during the week. But it doesn't.

Ash likens the idea of making up for lost sleep to brushing your teeth five times as long on Saturday to make up for not brushing them during the rest of the week. It will get rid of last night's tiredness, but won't address the bad nights before.

Sleeping at different times also messes up your SCN, your "suprachiasmatic nucleus." The SCN is a light meter located in your brain. Its function is to kick-start your body clock (or circadian rhythm) the instant it detects light. It was designed in a time way before electricity, and its operating system reflects its origins.

If you glimpse first light at 6 am and your body needs eight hours of sleep to feel truly rested, your SCN sets your body's time sleep-time at 10 pm.

But if your correct wake-up time is 6 am and your SCN registers any kind of first light (TV, street-, computer-, alarm clock) at 1 or 3 am, it sets your sleep-time to that start-time. Your circadian rhythm starts to clash with your light-meter. You fall out of sync with yourself. And you feel awful.

Thanks to your SCN's insistence on regularity, a weekend of longer sleeps is really a prescription for more nights of bad sleep. Which leads to the Sunday night up-all-nights: your body clock is set to crash much later than you are.

This is the point where I discuss sleep hygiene. Instead of running on empty during the week and binge-sleeping through the weekend, or trying to compensate for sleepless nights by sleeping in, Dr. Ash asks women with problem sleep to commit to waking up at the same for thirty consecutive days. This is enough time to identify where on the seven to nine hours a night spectrum we are and train the body to work on that schedule.

In the meantime, yes, life could be sucky. But there are ways to work with this, too.

To counter daytime sleepiness, Dr. Ash prescribes 20 minutes of direct sunlight - a prescription one can heed during the workweek by packing a happy trail mix and walking/ eating one's lunch outdoors. If we must nap during the day, we should make it a 20-40 minute nap between the hours of three-five pm.

As for work and sleep?

CEOs who want to promote sleep health might consider hosting pajama parties - real or actual - in which employees are taught the fundamentals of good sleep - and reassured that sleeping well is the starting point for success and innovation.

Sleep-robbing stress can stem from places other than work. But these can - and should - be dealt with, too. If we're tressed about finance, Ask says, it's time to seek help with your finances. Stressed about stress? Seek help from a counselor.

Barring physical maladies of which sleeplessness is a symptom, women with sleep problems should be on the way to finding sleep answers - and ending the Sunday night up-all-nights - within a month.

Which leaves Sunday night wide open for the companionable company of good REM and zzz's.